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International Break Blues

Will Chelsea’s momentum stop after the latest international hiatus?

The International Break is a necessary evil I suppose.  It’s fun sometimes, particularly during World Cup Qualifying.  Well, if your team wins that is.  I love supporting the USMNT (I always want to read that as U.S. Mutant Ninja Turtles), but it kills momentum for clubs.  It’s like tennis matches that get rain delayed overnight – it gives the guy who’s losing the match opportunity to regroup, rest, and heal if necessary.  Sometimes it totally changes the match.  And that’s what I’m afraid of because Chelsea has been on a roll, but now the international break – the IB if you will – has stopped the Blues in their tracks.

Compared to the past two seasons, this campaign is strange for Chelsea fans in that the team is sitting relatively pretty for a change, atop the league table, four points above the Manchesters.  So far we haven’t had to deal with the kind of angst that plagued us the past two seasons.  Yes, it’s hard to justify complaints when your team won the Champions League last season, but as anyone who followed that saga knows, it was the most stressful possible tournament in which Chelsea repeatedly cheated death, somehow escaping Munich with the big-eared trophy in their clutches.  By comparison this Premier League season has been downright docile.  So far at least.  That’s the main reason I’m concerned about this most recent momentum-killing IB.

I’ve really enjoyed watching Chelsea go undefeated this season – it’s been refreshingly un-stressful.  But now the team has to shake off their jet lag (Chelsea players are on a lot of national teams) and get their groove back in time to do battle at Tottenham this Saturday.  Add in the weirdness factor that they’ll be facing their old manager Andre Villas-Boas for the first time since Chelsea fired him last season and you have the makings of a potential perfect storm.  You can bet your booty AVB will have his Spurs revved up for maximum pride salvaging (meaning AVB’s pride).  It’s certainly not the cushy assignment a first place team would prefer to get to ease back into Premier League play after a tiring IB.  On the other hand, resuming the season with a dogfight like this may be the best way to get Chelsea back in the full swing of things.

Saturday’s game at Tottenham is a bigger match than initially meets the eye.  It is a crucial encounter that could mean the difference between establishing dominance in the league and giving the Manchesters a toehold.  The Manchesters do not need toeholds given to them.

Will Chelsea be able to regroup and shake off the cobwebs in time for the big clash with Tottenham Saturday?

American Breathing Room

U.S. keeps World Cup Qualifying hopes alive with win over Guatemala

The first five minutes of tonight’s game were depressing.  The U.S. defense was AWOL and Guatemala scored an easy tap-in goal.  Fortunately, Clint Dempsey had his game face on and scored a pair of first half goals, which, along with Bocanegra’s goal, gave the U.S. a relatively comfy 3-1 lead by halftime.  Speaking of game faces, did anyone notice the hilarious giant placard cutout of Dempsey’s wild-eyed crazy face (that he made in the last game against Jamaica) in the stands?  Good times.

The U.S. shored up their defense in the second half and passed more calmly and efficiently.  They should’ve added a few more goals, but I was just relieved to see them keep Guatemala from climbing their way back into the match.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s Andre-Villas-Boas-like celebrations after each U.S. goal were undoubtedly echoed by U.S. fans around the country.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief for now.  There is a very long way to go of course, but the U.S. bought itself some more time with the win tonight.  Time to regroup, get healthy (Donovan!), and figure out how to play some stingy D before the next round of World Cup Qualifying kicks off in February!

What changes does the U.S. need to make to survive the next round of qualifying?

Jozy Out-the-Door

Why Jozy Altidore’s omission from the US National Team is a good thing…

As some of you know, I’ve had some articles published on EPL Talk and a couple of their related sites this year.  In anticipation of the U.S.’ World Cup qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda tonight, I have a new article (about Jozy Altidore being dropped from the latest U.S. roster) which is now live at MLS Talk.  I hope you’ll check it out!

 

 

Not Cool, Mon

Jamaica puts U.S. in a dreadlock with 2-1 defeat

My thoughts exactly.

Clint Dempsey scored for the U.S. in the first minute of last night’s World Cup qualifying match in Kingston, Jamaica.  Looked like it was going to be a good night for the U.S.  But it wasn’t.  In unfortunately typical fashion, the U.S. flushed away their crucial road lead, this time by granting Jamaica two free kicks, which the Reggae Boyz converted to goals.

I don’t want to completely flog the U.S. team; after all, they’ve shown a lot of promise since Klinsmann took over and have enjoyed some good friendly wins this year.  But I do want to decry something that has bothered me for years about the U.S. men’s teams:  their lack of mental discipline in matches.  You’ve got to think out there.  For the full 90 minutes!  In the heat of battle it often seems this raw, brute force, overly aggressive American athletic instinct takes over that produces boneheaded fouls in dangerous areas and at inopportune times.  When will we learn?

And when will we learn that 1-0 leads aren’t enough in World Cup qualifiers away from home?  They usually aren’t enough in World Cup qualifiers at home either.  It may be enough of a lead for the Spains and Brazils of the world, but not for us!

One last vent… Kyle Beckerman – seriously?  I’m a Jurgen Klinsmann fan overall.  I like that he’s mixing things up personnel-wise, giving players like Brek Shea an opportunity.  But I don’t get what he sees in Beckerman.  I know we missed Donovan and Bradley in the lineup last night, but why not try Bocanegra in a holding midfield role, or start Shea?  Spector, Jose Torres, and Zusi were also on the bench and are each a better option than Beckerman.

The only silver lining here is that the U.S. doesn’t have to wait long to right the ship.  The return leg against Jamaica is this Tuesday in Columbus.  Here’s hoping the U.S. can rally with a big shutout before their World Cup qualifying picture really gets messy.

Need to vent about the U.S. loss to Jamaica?  Feel free to comment below…

Scorin’ in the Rain

U.S. defeats Antigua & Barbuda in so-so fashion

The fact that fans are so critical of the U.S. national team is a positive indicator that U.S. Soccer is on the right track.  The team has made so much progress over the past twenty years that fans now hold the team to a higher standard.  I recall the days when a 3-1 victory like last night’s win over Antigua & Barbuda was a celebrated rarity.  Now we grumble that Antigua & Barbuda actually scored.

 

The U.S. wasn’t awful last night, just not as smooth as they were against Scotland a couple weeks ago.  Primarily, there was the defensive leak caused by Onyewu in the second half that granted A&B their goal.  Unfortunately, Onyewu just doesn’t seem up to the task right now.  He has a very long way to go to recover his starting spot.  Other issues included too many second half giveaways by the U.S., and a general concentration lapse in the last fifteen minutes that allowed A&B to press the U.S. goal.

It wasn’t a close match.  Most of the action took place in A&B’s half of the field.  But the U.S. couldn’t finish precisely enough to run up the score (which is important since goal differential matters in qualifying).  Granted, the monsoon weather conditions didn’t help.  A&B also had the box well clogged for most of the game.  The U.S. needs to shoot from outside the box more to draw out defenses, which in turn will sometimes open up space for those darting runs into the box that Donovan, Dempsey, and Gomez (last night) do so well.  Dempsey and Bradley tried a couple distance shots that proved tricky for the A&B goalkeeper.  The U.S. needs to increase outside shooting because most of their CONCACAF opposition will employ the same defensive strategy of stuffing the box.

On a positive note, Herculez Gomez has been such a breath of fresh air at forward instead of Altidore.  He works much harder – on and off the ball – than Altidore and will actually hustle back to pitch in on defense.  His hard work paid off with a goal last night.  I’ve been saying for a long time that Altidore has received far too many chances to prove himself, so it’s great to see Klinsmann open to trying Gomez instead.

It was great to open World Cup qualifying with a win, but the real test will come Tuesday night in Guatemala.  If the U.S. can improve their concentration and tighten up on defense, they should be fine.

How did you think the U.S. looked against Antigua & Barbuda?

Coach Klinsmann

Exploring Past and Present with U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann

Euro 2012 starts today.  In fact, Poland and Greece are battling it out in Warsaw as I write.  But don’t forget the U.S. starts their World Cup qualification journey tonight against Antigua & Barbuda!

In anticipation of tonight’s CONCACAF qualifier, check out this vintage Sports Illustrated article about Jurgen Klinsmann from 1994.  I was cleaning out some files recently and found some Sports Illustrated issues from World Cup ’94.  In SI’s World Cup preview section (yes it was just a section and didn’t even make the cover!), I was surprised to rediscover a profile of Jurgen Klinsmann who was playing for AS Monaco in 1994.  It’s a great piece and provides some insight about Klinsmann you may not have known.  There is also an amazingly ironic photograph of a decal Klinsmann had on his car at the time of Snoopy in a rowboat wondering (in German), Is it much farther to America?  Weird!

I also highly recommend USsoccer.com’s Behind the Crest series of videos, which features surprising behind-the-scenes access to the U.S. national team that you won’t find anywhere else.  One of the most recent videos gives a very interesting look at the whole team (during their recent Orlando training camp) listening over breakfast as Klinsmann announced which four guys were being cut from the squad.  There is also a well-done series profiling various U.S. national team members in the European cities where they play.  Great stuff!

What are your predictions for the U.S. v. Antigua/Barbuda match?

Brazil or Bust

World Cup 2014 starts tomorrow for the U.S.

The United States’ 5-1 rout of Scotland on May 26 already seems a long time ago thanks to the two matches with much different results that have happened since.  First there was the 4-1 loss to Brazil in Landover, Maryland on May 30, then the 0-0 draw with Canada in Toronto last Sunday.  I’ve had to remind myself that these are friendlies, mere tune-up matches designed to prep the team for imminent World Cup qualifying – otherwise the Brazil and Canada results could be rather depressing.

The Brazil score wasn’t pretty, but there was plenty of pep in the U.S. step against Brazil, with the Americans inches from scoring on several occasions.  The 0-0 result against Canada is actually cause for more concern.  Yes, it was the third game in eight days for the U.S., they were probably tired, they’ve been training hard, etc.  But it’s Canada!  Our northern neighbors have made some headway the past few years toward improving soccer respectability within the region, but the U.S. should be able to handle them.  Instead, the zest that pulsated through the U.S. against Scotland was replaced with sluggishness and an inability to get sufficient numbers forward.  Canada was a lot more threatening on goal, and frankly scored one that should have counted (it was mysteriously waved off by a linesman).

A draw with Canada isn’t the most recent match memory you want to have on the eve of World Cup qualifying, but Jurgen Klinsmann and the boys are going to have to put it behind them, eat some Wheaties, and gird themselves because it’s CONCACAF time.  The World Cup doesn’t start in Brazil in 2014.  Those are the finals.  The World Cup tournament starts tomorrow night for the U.S., in Tampa, Florida against Antigua & Barbuda.  Here’s hoping for a multi-goal U.S. victory to get this qualifying campaign started off on the right foot!

Who would you like to see among the U.S. starting eleven against Antigua/Barbuda?

The Italian Job

Thoughts on U.S. Men’s 1 – 0 defeat of Italy…

Yes, it was “just a friendly”, but the U.S. win over Italy on Wednesday is a very big deal.  A little historical perspective helps in fully appreciating just how far U.S. soccer has come the past twenty years.  For those who don’t remember the deer-in-headlights U.S. team of Italia ’90, trust me, we’ve come a loooooong way.  So even though it was a friendly, it is a very significant win for the U.S. – in Italy no less – that should give Klinsmann and company plenty of confidence heading into World Cup qualifying this summer.

It was still primarily a defensive effort from the U.S., but the apparent game plan worked.  They made the most of their few chances, with one of them finally paying off in Dempsey’s grass-burner of a goal early in the second half.  It was the kind of goal Dempsey seems to score almost weekly now for Fulham.  Too bad the World Cup isn’t this year in order to catch this guy in his absolute prime.  Still, as long as he stays healthy, he should be a major contributor in 2014.

In midfield, Michael Bradley was mature and poised.  His stint in Serie A this season is obviously paying off.  He needs to start every U.S. qualifier.  Maurice Edu was also very effective and I hope we get to see more of him.  Brek Shea didn’t have one of his better games.  His decision-making needs honing as he too often tries to dribble guys he shouldn’t and sometimes passes to covered teammates.  But he’ll grow out of that.  He makes up for his mistakes by hustling back on defense.  I like his work ethic and speed.  I hope he continues to get U.S. team minutes because he could be a huge factor by 2014.

The defense was leaky in the first half, but fortunately the Italians were repeatedly offside.  The last ten minutes were nerve-wracking, but the defense got the job done and Howard came up with some quality saves.  It’s no small feat to keep Italy scoreless in Italy!  I hope Klinsmann can settle soon on a core back line so they have plenty of time to gel in qualifying.

My only real beef with the U.S. lineup was Altidore.  Has any American player been given so much opportunity with so little to show for it?  Commentators continue to heap praise, but I don’t see what the fuss is about.  Against Italy he received raves for assisting Dempsey’s goal.  Sure, it was good that he saw Dempsey’s run, but it was a very routine layoff that every player on the field could have made.  Altidore just isn’t enough of a scoring threat.  If he has speed, he rarely uses it.  He’s strong, but rarely uses his strength to force his way toward goal with the ball.  Most of the time he seems content to try to draw fouls.  Yawn.  For my money, if the U.S continues to do the lone striker thing, Dempsey’s the ticket.

It wasn’t always pretty, but it was a unified effort from the U.S. to get a memorable win.  It’s a very long road to Brazil 2014 but the first couple steps are looking good.

Which U.S. players were standouts against Italy?  Feel free to weigh in below…

Post-Gold Cup Debriefing

Changes needed before US can book 2014 trip to Brazil

Unfortunately, if the Gold Cup is any indication, US qualification for World Cup 2014 is not a forgone conclusion.  It should be.  I still expect them to make it, but we’ve got to tighten the belts and get to work to be certain.  Here is a handy to-do list:

1)  The US needs a defensive overhaul immediately if not sooner.  Fast counterattacks from the opposition should not be a surprise, yet fans hold their breath every time the US faces one because it’s inevitably a shaky moment.

Cherundolo’s the man, and Bocanegra has a lot of guts.  However, they’re not getting any younger and who knows where they’ll be in their careers three years from now.  Goodson and Lichaj have potential, but I’m not convinced they’re up to World Cup standards.  Maybe they will be by 2014, but in the mean time, we need to have a massive nationwide search for the best and the brightest.  Uncle Sam Wants You… to play some airtight D!

2)  The US needs someone to accelerate into space with the ball and attack the goal.  The best teams always seem to have a player or two who can move the ball solo when necessary, creating panic in the opposing defense and scoring opportunities (just look at Dos Santos and Hernandez in the Gold Cup final).  The US doesn’t have anyone like that right now.  Dempsey, currently the best all-around US player, is more confident and poised on the ball than he’s ever been.  But he doesn’t have the kind of open-field speed with the ball that the team needs.

Anyone who remembers the US teams of the 90s knows we’ve come a very long way in our possession game.  Now we just need to ratchet up the tempo multiple notches.

3)  Figure out our best roster and stick to it.  Teams need time to gel.  If we’re still tinkering by spring 2014, it will not be a good sign.  Give Maurice Edu some minutes (I don’t know why he spent most of the Gold Cup on the bench).  Kljestan surprised me in his limited appearances.  He’s worth another look.  Time-wise, the most proportionally impressive US player during the Gold Cup was actually Freddy Adu.  He needs to figure prominently in qualifying plans.

I’m not writing off Altidore yet because he’s young and could still develop into a great player, however, he’s had more than his fair share of chances the past few years and hasn’t produced nearly enough.  It’s time to look at some other striker options.  By the way, Agudelo and Wondolowski aren’t the answers.  I don’t like this strategy of cherry-picking whoever’s hot in MLS at tournament time.  Not that MLS can’t provide some excellent talent – it can – but the MLS picks for South Africa and the Gold Cup did not pan out.

4)  It’s time for a new coach.  I like Bob Bradley.  I didn’t at first.  After giving him a chance and reading more about him (Filip Bondy’s book Chasing the Game has a great section on Bradley), what I initially perceived to be arrogance I came to see more as dignity and wisdom.  He represented the country honorably and I admire that.  However, it’s time for a fresh start.  We need someone like Guus Hiddink or Jurgen Klinsmann.  Maybe someone with professional playing experience.  It seems counter-intuitive for Americans to pick a foreigner to coach our national team, but we could really benefit from the different perspective and experience a foreigner would provide.  Now is the best time to make a coaching change before World Cup qualifying gets fully under way.

What do you think – should Coach Bradley stay or go?  What else does the US need to address ahead of World Cup 2014?